Modesty is the main ingredient in ''Lost Embrace," and while that sounds like faint praise, it really just means that Daniel Burman's agreeably eccentric film is confident in its earthbound ambition. The story rarely strays too far from its little Buenos Aires shopping mall and the motley crew of merchants who keep the place hopping more than any customers do.
Ariel Makaroff (Daniel Hendler) is the son of one of these shop owners. But he's had it with working at his mother's lingerie boutique. He wants desperately to go to Europe, partly to better understand his Jewish heritage, partly as a rite of youth: Seeing a piece of the world is time-honored distraction from aimlessness.
This being a modest movie, Ariel never makes it to the runway -- not that he's quite ready to pack up and go. He's having an affair with Rita (Silvina Bosco), the lusty lady who works in the Internet cafe. He's still waiting to hear about his passport. And his mother (Adriana Aizenberg) wants him to pop over to Israel and visit Elias (Jorge D'Elia), the estranged dad who left abruptly to fight in the Yom Kippur War when Ariel and his older brother (Sergio Boris) were kids.
The son has only resentment for the father he believes walked out on his family, so, in his mind, there's not much of a point in forcing an unhappy reunion. But Burman and his co-writer, Marcelo Birmajer, forge one anyway, having Elias, dapper even without one arm, drop in for explanations and rapprochements.
''Lost Embrace" doesn't wade into melodrama: It's surreally upbeat. The shop owners converge to organize a race against another group of merchants, hoping to earn a cash purse to fix up the exterior of their mall and install air conditioning. And Ariel's attempts to better understand his family's Polish history and his Jewish self inspire moments of unexpected zaniness, but not too much.
Ariel interviews for a Polish passport and tells the official that he loves the country's artists, guys like Roman Polanski, Lech Walesa, and the pope. Trust me, it's a funny scene, due largely to Hendler's charisma. Ariel's shagginess makes him an unlikely movie hero. The kid needs a haircut.
Among his shortcomings is an incapacity for joy. The smiling photo on his passport application is an accident. But Hendler doesn't play Ariel morosely. The character is just self-serious and disappointed that he still hasn't done anything with his young life.
''Lost Embrace" has a novelist's human touch. Were it a book, it would go somewhere on the shelf with Jonathan Safran Foer and early Philip Roth. It also possesses traces of early Jean-Luc Godard and his wit with characters, as well as some of Wes Anderson's random silliness. But unlike in Godard and Anderson, an emotional undercurrent runs beneath this movie, and Burman makes that feel good without feeling strained.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.